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Sleep Tips for Shift Workers

The military works around the clock, which requires some service members to work nights and weekends. Whether you are working long hours while deployed or standing duty overnight, shift work can help provide critical mission coverage.

Staying alert and focused while on the job is vital, especially when you work outside the traditional 9-to-5 day. However, working "odd-shifts" can get in the way of getting a good night' sleep. In this article, learn how shift work impacts your sleep health and find tips to improve your sleep quality when you need to work non-traditional hours.

Why Shift Work Impacts Your Sleep

One of the biggest challenges of shift work is that it requires you to sleep when your internal body clock tells you to stay awake. Your body has multiple internal clocks, called circadian clocks. The central circadian clock lets you know when it is time to go to sleep or wake up. They typically run on a 24-hour repeating rhythm, called the circadian rhythm, and are affected by your environment. Light and darkness help your body determine when it should feel awake or tired.

When you work night shifts you are fighting your body’s natural rhythms to try and stay awake. It can then be difficult to fall asleep during the day since your body expects to be awake during this time. This can cause shift workers to be regularly sleep deprived. Lack of sleep can negatively affect your job performance and impair your ability to think clearly, putting the safety of you and your unit at risk.

Tips for Better Sleep

Adjusting to shift work and a new sleeping routine takes time. Remember, shift work impacts each person differently. Finding a routine that works best for you may take some trial and error. Try these practical tips to help you improve your sleep and better cope with shift work:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. If you work the night shift, try staying on the same sleep schedule even on your days off. For rotating shift workers, try adjusting your sleep time before a schedule change to prevent extreme disruption to your sleep.
  • Do not delay going to bed. As soon as your night shift is over go home to sleep. The longer you put off sleep the more likely you are to feel awake due to your body’s internal clock.
  • Create the right sleep environment. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and at a cool temperature. If your bedtime is during the day, try using a sleep mask, blackout curtains, earplugs and/or a noise canceling machine or app for better sleep.
  • Manage screen and light exposure. If it is daylight when you finish your shift wear a pair of sunglasses to limit sun exposure on your way home. If possible, avoid screen time before bed since the blue light can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Share your sleep schedule. If you live with family or roommates, let them know when you will be working and when you need to rest. Setting boundaries can help prevent conflict and sleep disruptions.
  • Nap strategically. Whether you have a bed available or just your rucksack, napping can be a great tool to improve performance and combat sleep loss. Try taking a nap before your night shift to reduce sleepiness and increase alertness while on the job.
  • Watch what you drink before bed. Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime. While you may find yourself falling asleep faster after a drink, alcohol causes you to wake up more in the night and disrupts sleep quality.
  • Eat light snacks at night. Avoid heavy meals during the night shift since your digestion and metabolism are less efficient at that time. Instead, choose light snacks and hydrate to help avoid drowsiness and digestion problems.

Finding Help

It is important to take your sleep health seriously. Not getting enough sleep can hurt your mission readiness and make it challenging to cope with daily stressors.

If you consistently experience trouble sleeping, consult a health care professional to discuss your symptoms and find treatment options. To connect with a trained health resource consultant for help accessing care, call the Psychological Health Resource Center at 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat.

Additional Resources:


  1. Calvert, Geoffrey. (2016, Oct. 5). Shift Work and Sleep. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NIOSH Science Blog.
  2. Cleveland Clinic. (2014, Dec. 10). How You Can Sleep Better If You Work the Night Shift.
  3. Jehan, S., Zizi, F., Pandi-Perumal, S. R., Myers, A. K., Auguste, E., Jean-Louis, G., & McFarlane, S. I. (2017). Shift Work and Sleep: Medical Implications and Management. Sleep medicine and disorders: international journal, 1(2), 00008.
  4. Morelock, S. G. (2017). The Night Shift: Follow the Evidence to Survive and Thrive. Nursing, 47(12), 46–51. doi: 10.1097/01.nurse.0000526889.33176.10
  5. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2011, Jan.). Your Guide to Healthy Sleep.
  6. National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). How to Sleep Well When You Work the Night Shift.
  7. Piazza, Geri. (2018, July 31). How Night Shifts Disrupt Metabolism. NIH Research Matters.
  8. UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. (n.d.). Coping with Shift Work.
Last Updated: March 14, 2024
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